To say that most political discussions on social media lack nuance seems tantamount to pointing out that most pornography lacks romance. The thrusts, parries, and asides of the Facebook comment skirmish and the Twitterfight generally constitute performative acts rather than thoughtful interpersonal engagement. It’s more the nature of the medium than the fault of the participants; ever-churning controversy keeps the machines running. One controversial subject now trending on a network near you is the issue of Cultural Appropriation—broadly defined as the use of the symbols, language, dress, hairstyles, music, art, and other signifiers of one culture by another.
A problem arises when we leave the subject broadly defined. Power dynamics are key, but to condemn all acts of cultural appropriation as theft leaves us in a bind. How do we generate culture without it? Not all acts of borrowing are equally respectful, but without them, we could not have had the musical revolutions of rock and roll—with its appropriation of the blues—or of hip-hop, with its appropriation of disco, pop, Kung Fu movies, and everything else in a DJ’s record and video collection. Negative and positive examples can easily get jumbled together under these rubrics. To avoid getting tangled in analytical brambles, why don’t we turn instead to what I would consider a positive example of cultural appropriation: the pieces you hear in the videos here, interpretations of blues songs performed by musician Luna Lee on a Gayageum, a traditional Korean zither-like instrument.
We’ve featured Luna’s Gayageum covers before—of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s take on Hendrix’s “Little Wing.” Both Hendrix songs demonstrate the degree to which the rock guitarist borrowed heavily from blues idioms. Traditional blues artists themselves, of course, created and innovated through borrowing from each other and from myriad traditional sources. Are Luna’s blues performances any different? She clearly demonstrates a love and respect for the source material, and she plays it with deftness and skill, taking pleasure in musicianship, not salesmanship. Her blues covers don’t seem to have much commercial appeal, but they greatly appeal to listeners judging by the number of people her videos reach.
At the top of the post, you can hear her play John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom.” Below it, we have Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign,” and above, B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone.” Lower down, hear Muddy Waters “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” (first recorded by Hambone Willie Newborn) and Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom.” Each interpretation relies on multitrack recording—Luna is either accompanied by a generic backing track or accompanies herself with a rhythm track that she plays over. Her covers of American blues classics on a traditional Korean instrument bring to the fore the intercultural accessibility of the songs and their adaptability to an instrumental context we might also consider “roots.” But as you can see from Luna’s Youtube channel, she doesn’t only adapt “roots” music. She also covers Radiohead, Frank Sinatra, Led Zeppelin, and AC/DC.
It’s likely my own bias for the blues—and for more traditional blues in particular—that makes me say so, but I think the covers represented here are her most successful. (Whether Messrs Hooker, King, King, Waters, and James would approve, I cannot say.) There’s something about hearing the Gayageum in dialogue with these songs that feels… well, if not exactly authentic at least less gimmicky than than a cover of One Republic. But ultimately, whatever your preference, if you can appreciate Luna’s instrumental skill and devotion to her source material, you’ll find something to love on her page.
She’s not in it for the money, but like every struggling artist, Luna has dreams and bills to pay. To support her work, visit her Patreon page and help contribute to her goal of playing music full time and hiring additional collaborators. In the pitch video below, Luna gives us some of her musical background and explains how she adapted the traditionally acoustic Gayageum for more rocking contemporary tunes.